Washington State Law Broadens Child Welfare’s Influence on Education

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed a bill last week that would firmly place the child welfare system in charge of foster youths’ schooling, and would assemble a volunteer army to assist in educational decision-making.

House Bill 1566 mandates the rapid movement of foster youths educational and medical records, and guarantees certain foster youths an “educational liaison” responsible for tracking the child’s academic progress for the court.

The law brings Washington in line with the spirit of federal legislation on foster youth educational records, and expands on a system used by California to track foster youth in the schools.

“I only prime sponsored one major policy bill this year: HB 1566,” State Rep. Reuven Carlyle (D) wrote on his Facebook page on May 8, the day of the signing. “My dream is that every foster youth can be successful in high school and post-secondary education and work.”

If a child is placed in the custody of the state’s child welfare agency, the Department of Social and Health Services, this bill mandates that at the “shelter care hearing,” the court produce an order regarding the child’s education and medical records.

The order would compel essentially all medical and school personnel – including psychiatrists and psychologists – to turn over any records requested by the child welfare agency without the consent of a parent or guardian.

The child welfare agency then has the authority to enroll the child in a different school, authorize special needs evaluations, excuse absences, and authorize medications and treatment during school hours.

For certain foster youths, the court order must also identify an educational liaison to advocate for and monitor the child’s academic career. A liaison will be appointed for all youths between grades six and twelve when:

  • All parental rights have been terminated
  • Parents are incarcerated or otherwise incapacitated
  • Contact between youth and parent has been restricted by the court
  • The youth is placed in a rehabilitative setting

The bill specifies a number of responsibilities for the liaison, including: reporting to the court about the youth’s education; advocating for needed services and extracurricular activities; and serving as the youth’s “surrogate parent” when it comes to education.

The new law incorporates into Washington the Uninterrupted Scholars Act, a federal bill that loosened federal privacy rights to ease and speed the transfer of education records to child welfare agencies.

The law also sets in law a program similar to California’s Foster Youth Services (FYS) program, a 30-year-old program that establishes a professional educational liaison for foster youth in each county office of education.

Ironically, the California program, which is associated with higher graduation rates for foster youth, faces elimination as a state program. FYS was originally among the state programs that both Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Senate would have eliminated on the state level, leaving counties the option to continue it or not with a state block grant.

On May 1, the California Senate Education Committee held a hearing on Senate Bill 69, which is the Senate version of Gov. Jerry Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula. Among the staff recommendations accepted was taking Foster Youth Services out of the list of categorical programs that would be eliminated as part of the comprehensive education funding overhaul.

In both cases, Washington’s HB 1566 goes beyond the legislative precedent. It expands on Uninterrupted Scholars by including the transfer of medical records without parental consent.

And while a section to facilitate the use of education records in research was stripped from the federal law before it passed, the Washington law requires a “university-based child welfare research entity” to report annually on foster youth’s academic data starting in 2015.

While California’s FYS stations one paid liaison for all of the foster youths in each school district, HB 1566 attaches an individual advocate to certain foster youths.

All of the liaisons will be volunteers, and in cases where it’s appropriate the liaison will be the youth’s parent. In cases where that is not possible, the preference expressed in the legislation is that a relative or foster parent serve as the liaison.

One key child welfare services provider lauded Carlyle for the victory.

“Every time foster care youth education initiatives advance anywhere in the country it is because a law maker fundamentally understands the issues and stands up to make change,” said Janis Avery, the CEO of Seattle-based Treehouse. Carlyle “is one of those legislators.”

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.